A museum centered on Art + Education + Social Justice through the lens of Africa + the diaspora

DISSERTATION | The Invisible Woman

A Study of Black Women In Magazine Beauty Advertisements

© Copyright 2019 by Andrea Arterbery, B.A.

ABSTRACT: Acknowledging the prejudices that exist within the beauty market, this thesis prepared in 2019 by Andrea Artebery (for the Degree of Master of Arts at the University of North Texas) examines the correlation between said bias and how Black women are represented in beauty advertisements of women’s fashion magazines.


This excerpt is from a thesis prepared for the degree of Master of the Arts, University of North Texas, May 2019.


Committee Chair: Tracy Everbach


(Art credit: Stephanie Nnamani from The Will of the Water series)



Statement of the Problem

The word “beauty” has no shortage of scholarly work that’s been conducted on its meaning, how it should look and its history. Popular quotes have espoused the key to beauty as lying within the beholder, while some say that it can be found within. Beauty can take on a totally different meaning, depending on where a person lives in the world; however, as a former beauty editor working at ESSENCE magazine in New York, I would err to say that, in America, the majority of its clarification can be found in race. Part of my daily job duties included organizing the mounds of beauty products that publicists would messenger over to the office in overstuffed shopping bags. Of course, it was great to see all the newest launches before they hit the market, but it was often quite disturbing when chatting with beauty editors from other publications such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue about the products and finding out that beauty brands weren’t sending over even half of the items that others got. And, if you asked a publicist why, they’d just give a flippant response like, “Oh, well, we just send over the products that we think will work best for ESSENCE and its readers.” Of course, ESSENCE’s top audience consists of black women, but how could a person conclude, based on one’s skin color, what beauty products a person may or may not use? Is this just the way some beauty publicists were thinking, or is it part of a bigger issue within America’s beauty industry? If sending over beauty products to magazines is part of the larger marketing plan for brands to get noticed, then why were editors at traditionally black publications such as ESSENCE given the shorter end of the product pool stick?


Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this thesis study is to take a mixed methods and black feminist approach (while honoring my role as a former beauty editor and black woman) to find out how black woman are represented within the beauty advertisements of women’s fashion magazines.

According to research firm Mintel, sales for beauty products in the United States have an overall estimated net worth of $445 billion (Mintel, 2017). While sales of makeup have proven to be lucrative for women of all races, there is a serious sales gap when it comes to shade specific products such as foundation. A 2017 Color Cosmetics study from Mintel reports that black women have a lower usage of facial makeup than white women (Mintel, 2017). This is not surprising to see as, since the beginnings of America’s beauty industry, black women have been consistently ignored. It wasn’t until singer Rihanna launched her signature makeup collection Fenty Beauty September 8, 2017 in SEPHORA, that beauty brands final began paying attention to black women. Fenty Beauty’s cosmetics line launched with 40 shades, with 10 additional shades added earlier this year. The darker shades of the foundation sold out immediately upon its initial launch. Advertising images and social media posts for the brand showed models wearing the makeup ranging in shades of albino to freckled and super dark – a message Rihanna purposely planned.

“In every product, I was like, ‘There needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl; there needs to be something for a really pale girl; there needs to be something in-between,” Rihanna said at her NYC launch event. Fenty Beauty earned $72 million in earned media value (Ruffo, 2017) and Women’s Wear Daily released a report stating that Fenty Beauty has the most diverse consumer base compared to other makeup brands.

Journalists (including myself) penned think pieced about how this product launch and advertisements were a long overdue callout to the beauty industry.


“I hope the positive social media attention that Fenty Beauty has received from black women sends a message to the rest of the beauty world to follow suit. It needs to give women of every skin tone the cosmetics they deserve – and creates products everyone can be excited about” (Arterbery, 2017).


Now, there’s what beauty insiders call The Fenty Effect, meaning that brands are finally starting to pay attention to an entire consumer demographic previously ignored (i.e. black women) and create foundation shades for all of our skin tones.

“In the year since, both Tang and Robertson say the Fenty effect (i.e., the chain reaction of brands launching more inclusive shade ranges in response to Fenty’s fanfare) has dramatically changed their experience with shopping for foundation. CoverGirl, Maybelline, and Dior, to name just a few, all now carry 40 shades of foundation – MAC even has 60” (Schallon, 2018). It’s a given that one of the main purposes of advertising is to sell goods and using attractive models within ads helps consumers find products that will help them to achieve the good looks portrayed in the ads (Englis, et. al, 1994). Physical appearance plays a dominant role in how people view these products. Studies show that consumer are more likely to purchase things that are modeled by attractive people, who “are better liked, and they are assumed to be more sociable, independent, and exciting, while less attractive are assumed to be deviant and are often stigmatized” (Englis, et. al, 1994).

As a black woman, former magazine editor, and through covering the beauty industry for over 10 years, I have noticed the lack of beauty products that work adequately for our skin tones. While perusing top women’s fashion magazines, I have also noticed the lack of black women featured within beauty advertisements and the lumping of black women within traditionally black publications such as ESSENCE and EBONY. Is this simply because the beauty industry isn’t selling to us or is it because of the hegemonic Whiteness that permeates America’s beauty ideal? Could there be a direct connotation between the representation of black women beauty advertisements and the products available to black women? For this thesis, I will examine women’s fashion magazines to find out how black women are presented within the beauty advertisements from 2012-2018.




The Black Body
The negative pool of thought that has consistently surrounded black women’s bodies for centuries can generally be traced back to slavery. It is important to bring this up because this schools of thought have never left America’s psyche and remnants of it can even still be found today. Dark skin was viewed as abhorrent and the black female body was viewed in even lesser terms (Arterbery, 2018, p.9).

From the arrival of the first 20 African slaves in 1619 to the shores of a British Colony in Jamestown, Virginia up until today, black women in America have always had to work harder in order to be seen and receive the same rights as other races – especially white women. Slavery also permanently changed the gender roles within the African American community. Before slavery, women living in Africa were able to successfully combine both work and family duties (Collins, 2009, p.55). Female Africans were not placed in chains and shackles like males because they weren’t seen as a threat. They did receive severe beatings and many were repeatedly raped aboard the boats by white male slave drivers and their crew. White men used rape as a way to exert control over the black female body, with some forcing their slaves to serve as mistresses by dangling the promise of freedom and other gifts such as jewelry and dresses in front of them. Black female slaves could not look to white women to stop their husbands from raping them as it was assumed that they must be seducing the men.


The enslaved black woman could not look to any group of men, white or black, to protect her against sexual exploitation. Often in desperation, slave women attempted to enlist the aid of white mistresses, but these attempts usually failed. Some mistresses responded to the distress of female slaves by persecuting and tormenting them. Others encouraged the use of black women as sex objects because it allowed them respite from unwanted sexual advances. Most white women regarded black women who were the objects of their husbands’ sexual assaults with hostility and rage (hooks, 2015, p.36).


As slaves, West African women were forced to complete much of the same work as men making them “economically exploited, politically powerless units of labor” (Collins, 2009, p.56). Slavery also exploited the reproduction rights of black women by requiring them to give birth to children specifically for their owners in order to ensure the continuation of the plantation business. Owners would either force their female slaves to breed with other slaves or rape them and those that were barren were sold away. Female slaves that were able to reproduce abundantly were sold at higher prices and their children were usually sold to other plantations as soon as they were old enough. These forced, multiple pregnancies combined with the harsh working conditions of working in the fields were very hard on the bodies of black females and led to multiple health problems.


“Breeding was oppressive to all fertile black slave women. Undernourished, overworked women were rarely in a physical condition that would allow for safe, easy childbirth. Repeated pregnancies without proper care resulted in numerous miscarriages and death” (hooks, 2015, p.41).


When slavery ended in 1865, black women had severely limited job options: work on a farm or complete domestic service in the homes of white people, both positions done during the centuries of slavery.


Whiteness & Colorism

Black women with lighter skin (i.e. someone such as myself) traditionally have an easier time at finding cosmetics, particularly foundation shades, that work. This is because the white people who have been running major beauty brands for generations (think Estee Lauder) have always created products for African American women that revolve around the idea of meeting the ideals of white beauty standards.

Colorism looks at the privilege light-skinned people of color have over those with darker skin tones in areas such as work and education. Its roots can be found within slavery. Male slaves with darker skin were made to work in the fields because, to white people, this skin tone meant that they were better suited to work there instead of within the house. The house jobs were saved for blacks with lighter skin tones as they were viewed as weaker than those with darker skin tones. Females slaves with dark skin were also viewed as stronger and also made to work in the fields alongside men and forced to breed.


“On any plantation with a substantial number of female slaves, black women performed the same tasks as black men; they plowed, planted and harvested crops. On some plantations, black women worked longer hours in the fields than black men” (hooks, 2015, p.23).


But, what about the role it plays within America’s beauty industry? Its roots run deep and there’s no shortage of black women who have dedicated YouTube videos, Instagram posts and news articles to the lack of concern beauty executives seem to have when it comes to creating products that work for darker skin tones.


“The problem that I and many other women of color face on a regular basis is surviving that experience again and again, in an industry where makeup is predominantly default white. This is not a new dilemma at all, as much as it is a constant cycle of exclusion and expected inefficacy with occasional outliers” (Hope, 2016).


Once slavery ended, black people were left to create their own style aesthetics. With not much else to emulate, of course it made sense that black women would use the same style and beauty techniques as the white women around them. But, in hindsight, the majority of black women were only trying to assimilate as best they could into their new lives as freed women. During this time, known as the New Negro movement, blacks began migrating from the Deep South plantations many of them had lived on their entire lives to move to northern cities such as Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

There was very little that black female slaves working under harsh, impoverished conditions could do to groom themselves as many did not have time nor access to skincare products and services. However, this did not stop white men and women from invoking stereotypes to “exaggerate racial differences, dehumanize African Americans, and deny them social and political participation” (Peiss, 1998, p.33).

Black women used their own beauty rituals that consisted of head scarves to cover “kinky, unstyled hair or hair that suffered from patchy baldness, breakage or disease” (Patton, 2006, p.28). Slaves created their own hair styling tools and products such as sheep fleece carding tools to untangle the hair; bacon grease and butter to condition and soften the hair; cornmeal and kerosene to cleanse the scalp and coffee as a natural dye (Patton, 2006, p.28). Hair was styled in relation to where they worked – either in the field or in the house. When working in the house around whites, slaves were required to keep a “neat and tidy appearance or risk the wrath of the master, so men and women wore tight braids, plaits and cornrows” (Patton, 2006, p.28).


“This aesthetic subculture encompassed folk traditions, intergenerational exchanges between black women, and the survival techniques black women used to maintain their appearances under the harsh conditions of enslavement” (Lindsey, 2011, p.101).


Hair straightening was not a beauty technique that black female slaves did because not only did it usually signify free-person status, but it also emulated the same hair look as white women. However, there were plenty of light-skinned African American women who did straighten their hair in order to pass for white. Black people with lighter skin (i.e. those mixed with both black and white and known as mulattoes) were viewed by whites as more visually appealing than those with dark skin. Because of their lighter skin tones and straighter hair texture, mulattoes were given jobs as house servants (instead of working in the fields with darker skinned blacks) and also sometimes received special privileges such as access to material possessions. Some were given a formal education.


Emulating whiteness offered a certain amount of protection. Lighter-skinned, straighter-haired slaves worked inside the plantation houses performing less back-breaking labor than the slaves relegated to the fields. Because of this, these slaves had better access to clothes, education, food and the promise of freedom upon the master’s death. Thus, adopting many white European traits was essential to survival, e.g., free vs. slave, employed vs. unemployed, educated vs. uneducated, upper class vs. poor (Patton, 2006, p.28).


But, no matter how white a person looked, as long as either of their parents were African American, they were still considered to be black, according to the one drop rule. This law, originally passed by English colonists and that still exists to this day even though it’s considered to be unenforceable, gives any person with even a drop of black blood the same rights as pure African (Russell-Cole, et al., 2013, p.17).

Because of this law, many Mulattoes who had light enough skin, passed for white in order to gain the same privileges as white people.


“Complexion, along with other Eurocentric physical features – blue, grey, or green eyes; straight hair texture; thin lips; and a narrow nose – has been accorded higher status both within and outside the African American community. Conversely, dark complexion and Afrocentric features – broad nose, kinky hair, full lips and brown eyes – has been devalued” (Glenn, 2009, p.25).


By the time slavery ended, black people with lighter skin tones had established themselves as the Negro Elite, with good hair and light skin being the official keys to its membership (Lindsey, 2011, p.102). The brown paper bag test, meaning a person had to be as light as or lighter than a brown paper bag, was created and used to keep darker skinned blacks out.

Having white (or lighter colored) skin remained a social norm that American women of all races aspired to have. Early scientists who were trying to establish what exactly beauty is used race a/s a way to ascertain dominance over blacks. By studying the heads and facial features of blacks and whites, scientists ascertained that blacks closely resembled primates more so than whites, therefore defining beauty as something that can only apply to people of European descent (Cain, 2008, p.30).

In 1660, Robert Boyle, a scientist that would later became known as the Father of Chemistry, wrote in Of The Nature of Whiteness and Blackness that black skin was an ugly deformity of normal whiteness, with the physics of light showing that whiteness was the “chiefest color” (Kendi, 2016, p.5).

In 1845, Alexander Walker wrote in his exposition, Beauty: Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis of Classification of Beauty in Women:


White, as everyone is aware, is the color which reflects the greatest number of luminous rays; and for that reason, it bestows the brilliance and splendor upon beautiful forms with which all are charmed. The climate of Africa, the cerebral structure of its inhabitants, and the degree of their civilization are unfavourable to the existence of beauty as to the power of judging and respecting it (Cain, 2008, p.31).


Words such as these were spread all over the United States helping to establish whiteness not only as a dominant beauty ideal, but also one that became synonymous with a system of racial power.

“It is accomplished – in part – through a combination of elements such as worldviews, values, frames, repertoires, narrative and symbolic boundaries, which together serve to maintain racial oppression and normalize an imbalanced racial hierarchy” (Withers, 2017, p.1).

Despite the fact that there weren’t a lot of beauty products currently on the market for women to purchase during this time, they were still able to create their own homemade concoctions. White women began using white powder mixtures composed of ground-up starch, rice or chalk on their faces to preserve and exacerbate their whiteness. Tan skin was highly frowned upon as this usually was a key signifier of poverty. Skin whiteners quickly became the most popular beauty product of the nineteenth century, with lead-based whitening lotions and powders being used all over the face and body in order to lighten the skin. For white women, pale skin tones not only signified high societal rankings, but it was also equated with personal qualities of goodness, purity, innocence, and


“A beautiful white face reflected an unstained heart, and the skin’s translucence was no longer valued solely for its physical beauty: it was valorized as evidence of moral rectitude that allowed a women’s inner light to shine for any observer” (Cain, 2008, p.31).

1967 Dr. Palmer Advertisement

Beginnings of the Black Beauty Industry

White women weren’t the only ones using skin products to lighten their skin tones. After slavery, white (or light) skin remained the social norm that many black women aspired to have.


“American Negro women of the nineteenth century were known to sometimes rub lye directly on their skin. Others applied harsh acidic products made for removing dirt and grime from floors and walls. It was not unheard of for a mother to try lightening a dark daughter by dunking her every day in a tub of bleach. None of these methods worked, and all of them smelled, burned or permanently damaged the skin” (Russell-Cole, et. al, 2013, p.70).


Realizing the popularity of these skin whiteners among African American women, white beauty manufacturers began marketing skincare products that promised to permanently whiten black skin.


“Dark skin was not viewed as attractive or modern within certain elite circles in Washington and within the U.S. more broadly. Consequently, the racially-specific enterprise of African American skincare that emerged post-Emancipation honed in on a racial-social-class- color-gender hierarchy that devalued dark skin and that further solidified the primacy of physical whiteness” (Lindsey, 2011, p.102).


In addition, the products being sold to black people by these white-owned companies “stood accused of selling fake or hazardous preparations that ruined the skin and even led to death” (Peiss, 1998, p.211).

Sweet Georgia Brown Face Powder Ad

Newspaper advertisements in black publications peddling skin bleaching products were used, declaring “lighter skin as both ‘American’ and ‘modern beauty ideals’ within their advertisements” (Lindsey, 2011, p.102).

These advertisements ran in all of the top African American newspapers from the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. One of the more famous ads were the ones by a white entrepreneur named Dr. Fred Palmer who proclaimed in newspaper advertisements “‘Proof That Dark Skin Can Be Made Lighter.’ ‘Why be content with dark skin and sallow skin, marred with blotches and blemishes?’ ‘Make yourself beautiful, happy and contented…Now, It’s Easy For Every Woman to be Beautiful’” (Phillips, 2004, p.8). Another example of a Dr. Palmer advertisement for his Skin Whitener (as seen below) features a smiling light-skinned African American woman and copy that promises your skin to “come alive” and a “happy, more youthful you.”

Mainstream women’s fashion magazines have a history of completely leaving out black women and promoting lighter skin tones of black people within beauty advertisements, beginning in the 1950s with a “hierarchy of skin color” (Hazell and Clarke, p.6).

The media are a widely circulated resource that not only provide readers with information but also perpetuate societal beliefs, which are dominated by an ideology of White supremacy concerning race and gender. Ads in particular, although seemingly harmless, have great power in distributing societal messages concerning race and gender to the population and thus in this way shape people’s perceptions and understandings of people of particular genders and races (Hazell and Clarke, 2008, p.18).


The shopping habits of African American consumers have been studied extensively since the 1960s, with research establishing a more positive response to advertisements that feature black models versus those with white models (Ragoonan, Shrestha, Smith, 2005, p.65).

Although advertisement spending is significantly lower for black media (in 1998 only $870 million of $160 billion ad dollars were spent targeting African Americans (Ragoonan, Shrestha, Smith, 2005, p.67)), black magazines typically fare better when it comes to eschewing white beauty ideals and being more inclusive of black women within its overall advertisements. A content analysis conducted by Leslie (1995) of black people in Ebony from 1957 to 1989 found that black people adhering to white beauty standards decreased (Hazell and Clarke, 2008, p.8).

Despite the proliferation of black models within black magazines, striving for whiteness became the primary ideal for all African American women and is cemented into the foundations of America’s beauty industry. Black skin was viewed as unclean and diseased by the general white population and it wasn’t long before blacks even began selling and encouraging the use of bleaching creams since lighter skin was seen as a vehicle for social mobility.


“Among the culture industries that achieved prominence in black urban communities, the beauty industry emerged as a site, arbitrated by white cultural hegemony. This industry could not escape the racism and sexism that pervaded the New Negro era. White beauty ideals and trends within the U.S. beauty culture played integral roles in the formation and growth of a nationalized, black beauty culture” (Lindsey, 2009, p.99).


The modern beauty industry as we know it didn’t emerge until the second half of the 19th century thanks to major developments such as the photo (photography) and industrialization (Wolf, 2002, p.12). Rising incomes, which allowed for more discretionary income, as well as shift in values is what helped to modernize America’s beauty industry.


“In Western societies, most people smelled bad until the middle of the nineteenth century, due to a widespread aversion to washing with water which became prevalent during the outbreaks of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. However, thereafter, personal cleanliness assumed the status of an indicator of moral, social, and racial superiority. Hygienic standards became a means of defining social hierarchy and differences, and an attribute of female domesticity. Regular personal washings became routine in middle-class households in the United States during this time” (Jones, 2008, p.127).


Aside from the influx of skin whiteners that flooded America’s budding beauty industry, there also came the (mostly female) entrepreneurs who created some of the world’s biggest beauty companies. These include: Helena “Madame” Rubinstein, the first cosmetic manufacturer to have her product sold in a department store; Florence Nightingale Graham (i.e. Elizabeth Arden), the first to use premium packaging for her products; Josephine Esther Mentzer (i.e. Estee Lauder) who was the first to create story lines for her products which resulted in high sales. However, none of these top beauty entrepreneurs created products for or marketed to African American women in the early days of their businesses. While black women did use them, advertisements were specifically catered to upscale white women and products such as foundations and other color cosmetics were created only for pale, super light skin tones. (See Figure 2).

However, out of this (literal) whitewashing of black women came the formation of the black beauty industry. The first key player was Annie Turnbo Malone who created the Wonderful Hair Grower in 1900. She also created the PORO system, a skin and hair treatment for black women that she hoped would uplift black women’s self-esteem in light of the prevailing whiteness that dominated society.


“With few public health services for Blacks in the United States, Ms. Malone believed along with many race leaders of that time, that cleanliness and good health practices raised the status of Black women period, but especially in the White public sphere that deemed Black bodies as filthy and threatening” (Phillips, 2004, p.7).


From this, Malone was able to create a major manufacturing hair product firm and beauty college for black women. Malone, who travelled the South recruiting other black women to sell the PORO system, “incorporated African concepts as the foundation of her company to reframe African women’s view of themselves” and did not encourage the use of bleaching or skin lightening products (Phillips, 2004, pg.8).


“Ms. Malone wanted Black women to understand that their skin conditions, impoverishment, and problems revealed the effects of captivity and racism rather than any personal failings or any idea of being unattractive” (Phillips, 2004, pg. 8).


The next major black beauty entrepreneur was Sarah Breedlove Walker (i.e. Madame C.J. Walker). She began in the early 1900’s by selling Turnbo’s products before eventually branching off to create her own hair-care business. Walker created a factory, salons, and beauty schools while also travelling the U.S. and hiring black women to use and sell her products. While she did encourage black women to love their darker skin tones and natural hair textures, she is best known for the invention of the hot comb, an iron comb that heats up on a stove top to straighten black women’s hair, that is still used today. This procedure, known as pressing the hair, allowed black women to easily emulate the hairstyle of white women which caused some to criticize the process and compare it to the use of skin lightening products.

Black beauty soon became mired in social politics as everyone seemed to have an opinion on how African American should look. The black elite embraced the idea of a new look for the black woman “to counter the plantation and minstrel stereotypes, envisioning a figure of modernity who embodied change to historical change to historical circumstances and future prospects” (Peiss, 1998, 205). Others such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association embraced dark skin and denounced Madame C.J. Walker for promoting hair straightening among black women. Boycotts were called against white owned beauty companies that sold to African Americans. No matter the number of protests, there were still plenty of black women during this time who bleached their skin and straightened their hair in an eager ploy to join the ranks of the Negro Elite.


Whether they began as free people of color or as enslaved house servants, those blacks who came to make up the black aristocracy were typically those who were able to gain an education and various professional skills. Access to a college education was clearly the earliest and surest method for earning respect among progressive whites who were willing to teach blacks various trades and offer them limited work (Graham, 2000, p.6).


Not only did joining the ranks of the Negro Elite guarantee a rise for black women economically, but it also became the ideal beauty standard upstanding black men looked for when seeking a wife as this also allowed for them to increase their social standing in America.


“Dominant beauty standards that idealized fair skin, small noses and lips, and long flowing hair defined black women’s dark skin colour, facial features and tightly curled, short hair as ugly” (Craig, 2006, p.163).


The promise of cultural acceptance, education and good paying jobs (i.e. all things that very few blacks had been able to achieve in their lifetimes due to slavery) proved to be too much of an allure, and black women continued doing everything possible to emulate white beauty ideals. This included lightening the skin and straightening the hair. Black women did not have as many cosmetic options to choose from as white women. One of the earliest known cosmetic companies that created makeup for black woman, Valmor Products, Co., actually came from a Hungarian named Morton Neumann. He grew up in Chicago and was well aware of how American beauty companies ignored the cosmetics needs of black women.

One of his most popular products was the Sweet Georgia Brown face powder and it came in shade names such as tantalizing brown, aristocratic brown, suntan, and teezum red. Advertisements for the face powder (as seen below) “promised a lighter appearance in 10 seconds and pointed out that powder is specially made to give tan and dark complexions the BRIGHTER attractive beauty that everybody admires” (Nittle, 2018).

Maybelline Ad from EBONY, June 1963

It would not be until the 1960s that more mainstream beauty brands such as Maybelline (in an advertisement as seen below) and Avon that would begin specifically marketing more of their products to black women. One of the best ways to reach this consumer was through magazine advertisements.


Beauty Advertisement Beginnings

A term originally penned by author and self-proclaimed feminist, Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, Wolf claims that beauty actually has nothing to do with women and, instead, everything to do with men’s institutions and power.


“‘Beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact” (Wolf, 2002, p.12).

Wolf says that the development of technologies and mass production (i.e. photographs), the breakdown of families, and the introduction of the middle class along with the factory system (i.e. industrialization) is what helped to pave the way for modern version of the beauty myth (Wolf, 2002). Women’s fashion magazines came along soon after. This helped institutions further cement today’s beauty ideals, starting with advertisements. As women in America became more literate and educated through colleges such as Vassar and Radcliffe in the 1860s and 1870s, “the mass production of beauty images aimed at women was perfected, and The Queen and Harper’s Bazaar were established. The rise in women’s magazines was brought about by large investments of capital combined with literacy and purchasing power of lower- middle and working-class women: The democratization of beauty had begun” (Wolf, 2002, p.62).

Using feminine beauty to sell beauty products to consumers is an old technique and it is well-noted within the scholarly world that physical appearance most certainly plays a pivotal role in this.


“Since the pioneering work of Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972) that empirically demonstrated the ‘what is beautiful is good’ halo effect in perception, social psychologists have been aware of what laypeople have long known: physical appearance matters” (Englis, et. al, 1994, p.50).


Due to the negative images and connotations that have followed black women since first landing in America as slaves, it’s not surprising to see that African American specific publications such as EBONY were the first to feature positive beauty advertisements with black females. From the overwhelming underrepresentation of blacks in ads to only using blacks with lighter skin (Watson, et. al, 2010), and the comparison of physical characteristics of blacks in advertisements to blacks in the general population (Kennan, 1996), much research has been conducted to establish the overall racism inherent within the advertising industry. There is also plenty of research that documents how women of color are represented in mainstream women’s magazines and how these counter-stereotypical portrayals weaken stereotypes (Covert & Dixon, 2008, p.233).

However, updated scholarly research is severely lacking in the area of how black women are represented (or misrepresented) within the beauty advertisements of today’s popular women’s fashion magazines.


A (Black) Feminist Notion

According to Janet Saltzman Chafetz, there are three elements of feminism: “(1) a (not necessarily exclusive) focus on the inequities, strains and contradictions inherent in gender arrangements; (2) an assumption that gender relations are not immutable but rather changeable social creations; and (3) a normative commitment that societies should develop equitable gender arrangements” (Chafetz, 1999, p.4).

Post-feminists have declared the body to be a woman’s primary source of power with surveillance by others (including both men and women) being its top watcher.


“Surveillance of women’s bodies constitutes perhaps the largest type of media content across all genres and media forms” (Gill, 2007, p.149).


While much has been written in regards to feminist thoughts surrounding the portrayal of women’s bodies within both fashion and beauty advertisements of women’s magazines, (i.e. the sexual posing, ageism, and extensive photoshopping of women’s bodies) black women are usually excluded from these conversations and white women are used as examples to showcase the topics mentioned. History has shown that feminists within North America tend to leave out races of women (especially black women) as it pertains to theory and scholarship (Nicholson, 1989, p.1). If the whole idea of feminism is to speak up and out about the rights and mis-treatment of all women, how can it be that certain ethnicities are ignored?


“Racism is so ingrained in American culture, and so entrenched among white women that black females have been reluctant to admit that anything affecting the white female could also affect them. Indeed, many black women have tended to see all whites regardless of sex, as sharing the same objective interest, and clearly the behavior of many white women vis-à-vis blacks has helped to validate this reaction” (Simons, 1979, p.385).


When the women’s suffrage movement began in America with the promise of uniting and fighting for the right of equality for all women, it first included black women. In fact, it was former slave Sojourner Truth that singlehandedly saved the First National Convention on Women’s Rights in 1850 from the “disruptive jeers of hostile men” (Davis, 1981, p.60).


“Of all the women attending the gathering, she alone was able to answer aggressively the male supremacist arguments of the boisterous provocateurs. Possessing an undeniable charisma and powerful oratorical abilities, Sojourner Truth tore down the claims that female weakness was incompatible with suffrage – and she did this with irrefutable logic. In repeating her question ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ no less than four times, she exposed the class bias and racism of the new women’s movement” (Davis, 1981, p.61-63).


But, when it seemed as if black men would receive the right to vote before white women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the top leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America, spoke out against black and created a distinct line of demarcation in what many consider to be the beginnings of Western feminism. In a letter to the editor of the New York Standard in 1865, Stanton wrote: “The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro; and as long as he was lowest in the scale of being, we were willing to press his claims; but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, its becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first” (Davis, 1981, p.70).

Consistent objectification of the black female body has led to the creation or roles that not only works to keep a wall of separation between other female races in America, but also ensures that white women remain the ideal form of feminine beauty in America.


“The elevation of white womanhood to that nonthreatening space of ornamental powerlessness, the ‘pedestal,’ completed the structure of southern patriarchal racism and intensified interracial antagonism between women” (Caraway, 1991, p.77).


The objectifying roles that encompass the lives of black women were first outlined by black feminist scholar Patricia Hill-Collins, who references them as controlling images.

The dominant ideology of the slave era fostered the creation of several interrelated, socially constructed controlling images of Black womanhood, each reflecting the dominant group’s interest in maintaining Black women’s subordination. Moreover, since Black and White women were both important to slavery’s continuation, controlling images of Black womanhood also functioned to mask societal relations that affected all women (Collins, 20009, p.79).

Several stereotypes of Black women emerged from this thought. They include:


• The domesticated Mammy (i.e. the woman who cooked and cared for children) justifies the reason black women are content to serve within poorly paid domestic service roles and is also “the public face that Whites expect Black women to assume for them” (Collins, 2009, p.81).
• The Matriarch, which as the opposite of the Mammy, represents that bad mother, meaning the inability of black women to adequately complete their traditional womanly roles at home which contributes to societal problems in Black civil society (Collins, 2009, p.83).
• The Welfare Mother image ties directly to the breeder role that black women encompassed during slavery. Depicting black women as poor, working class mothers who utilize social welfare benefits, she is labeled as lazy with too many children and no male figure in the home to assist her.
• The Welfare Queen, a depiction of those who don’t work and receive state benefits, these images portray black women as worthless and making no impactful contributions to America’s capitalist society.
• The Jezebel image harkens to the sexually aggressive label that white men and women used back in the slavery days to excuse the sexual assaults placed upon black women daily.


Black women have tried (unsuccessfully) to remove themselves from these images, but social institutions such as the government and the news media make it difficult to do. If these are all of the images that people in America associate black women with, it is no surprise to see that beauty corporations would not be doing more to create adequate products and more positive advertising images showcasing black women of all skin tones. According to Beauty, Inc.’s “Diversity in Beauty” report that examined racial diversity within upper management at the top 10 beauty companies, there are no women of color at the number one beauty brand L’Oreal; number five beauty brand Coty, Inc.; number seven beauty brand LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton; number eight beauty brand Beiersdorf; and number 10 beauty brand L Brands (Fine, 2019, p.46).

While it is certainly discerning to see that there is such a serious lack of female representation within the world’s top 10 beauty companies, it does explain why it has been so hard for black women to get away from being represented in such as negative manner within beauty advertisements.

Andrea Arterbery is a Dallas, Texas based freelance writer born and raised in the tiny town of Marshall, Texas. While growing up in Marshall, she read piles of books, tried on all of the beauty products that she could steal from her mom’s massive AVON stash all while becoming the biggest band nerd in America. Follow her on Instagram, here.

Share via
Copy link